Gabe was perpetually getting into expensive trouble and then letting others bail him out.
But that didn’t stop her from coming up with the money to pay for a lawyer — even though it was entirely Gabe’s fault they were arrested for racking up several speeding tickets and then doing backwards doughnuts in a parking lot in Idaho. After all, he didn’t have the cash to pay his way out of the situation.
Anyway, she figured he was good for it. He emphatically promised to pay it back. And hadn’t they talked many times about marriage, a family, the whole damn thing? She figured, “What’s mine is yours.”
Cut to a year later. Gabe and Margo have split up, not very amicably, and moved apart, but she’s still footing the bill for what turned into a very expensive road trip. And she wants her money back: “What’s mine is mine!”
Who Owes Who?
As anyone with relationship experience knows, Margo’s dilemma is more common than not. Just about everyone has a story about an ex who owes them money — whether for a loan or rent, or in a grayer area, i.e. a shared weekend getaway or front-row tickets to that Blue Man Group show. It seems some people see the end of a relationship as a chance to wipe the slate clean — of debts as well as emotional and physical involvement.
This can be particularly galling if the dumper is the debtor. Then, the one owed is stuck in a precarious position — he or she might not want to appear petty by asking for the cash, and any contact with the ex is only going to add to the emotional discomfort.
Conversely, if the dumper is the one owed, he or she may choose to ignore the debt by way of apology. After all, who wants to be the one who says, “Sorry, I’ve started seeing your best friend, it’s over between us. Can you pay me back that $500 for our weekend in Vermont?”
The fact is, though, some people will do to former lovers what they would never think of doing to friends. For some, it seems that damaged bank statements are just part of the old equation, “all’s-fair-in-love-and-war.”
“It’s hard to see how that could be,” says Samuel Black, an associate professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University. His courses include a broad range of ethics-related courses.
“There are many different kinds of situations. But if you make a promise to someone that is a non-monetary promise — let’s say, that the kids will be read to a certain amount each day — even if the relationship falls apart there’s no reason to think promissory obligations are no longer binding. If that’s true, the same principle could be applied to monetary relationships. It’s hard to see why the simple fact two people have had a falling out would extinguish obligations that have been voluntarily incurred.”
Black allows that complicating factors might come into account. When a relationship ends acrimoniously, someone feeling betrayed might believe that debts were accrued under false or misleading circumstances. “If the promise occurred because the person who received the promise lied to the other individual or mislead them, those are complications that might undermine the promissory obligation. But if there are no complications, I can’t see how the fact the relationship has ended absolves people from monetary promises. I guess you could call me someone in the strict promise-keeping camp.”
At a certain point, many of us might simply write off what we feel is owed, and simply chalk it up to, as one friend put it, “the cost of doing business.” Obviously, you are not going to pursue someone to the ends of the earth for the cost of a frappuccino. But how about $250? Two thousand?
The Value of Money
There is legal recourse in these situations. “If it’s not common-law, the fact you were in a relationship is irrelevant,” says Noah Neaman, a defense lawyer. “It’s like any contract. If I agree to loan you $1,000 and you agree to pay me back, my recourse is to go to small claims court. Then it’s just a matter of evidence, and whether a judge believes a contract or agreement took place.”
But before you end up on People’s Court, consider that it costs money to file a claim. “The judge may find there’s uncertainty of terms, but that has nothing to do with the relationship. Generally, if I loan you money and you say I’ll pay you back, a court — if it believes there was a loan and an agreement — will enforce it.”
In that case, having something in writing helps but is not absolutely necessary.
Luckily, Margo, crafty as a fox, obtained Gabe’s written admission of debt in several emails. To date, she’s been paid back $500 of the $1,000-plus she figures she’s owed. Although, she says, no amount can recompense for what she sees as two wasted years but that’s another story.
Curiously, no one interviewed for this article admitted to being the person who welshed on a deal made in the heat of passion or even at the end of a particularly nice dinner. Perhaps, when relationships end, we’re all under the illusion that we’re owed something. Or that, in the final tally, everything balances out.